Massachusetts: Clam Central, U.S.A.
Published: April 2009
By Peter Meehan
Maine may have lobsters, but if you’re looking for the quintessential fried clams, head straight to Massachusetts.
If you’ve never encountered great New England-style fried clams—the ones that make the short trip from the sandy Massachusetts mud of the estuaries and bays near Essex and Ipswich into the deep fryers of the best local clam shacks—it might be hard to imagine their lasting physiological impact.
Mild salivation at the mere mention of, say, J. T. Farnham’s or Essex Seafood is a common side effect. A paranoid inclination to scan the sky for clamscavenging seagulls often follows. Most telling is the increased output of the vacation rationalization gland, causing an unprecedented desire to explore America’s marshlands (specifically those closest to the short IpswichtoEssex stretch of Route 133, the clam lover’s road to joy) or, once there, to parlay a town’s selfawarded title of America’s Antique Capital to lure a reluctant travel partner back on the road for a few more plates of fried clams.
New Englanders fry softshell clams, the same kind cooked as steamers. In Essex and Ipswich, they don’t come from farther away than Newbury, a few miles to the north, or Gloucester, a few miles to the south, and are most often dug from beds that dot the intertidal zones around the two towns. Locals point to the area’s particular mix of sand and mud as one reason the native clams are so good, protesting that it’s too gravelly up in Maine or that the sand’s all wrong out on Cape Cod.
Ipswich is so closely identified with fried clams that the softshell has taken the popular name Ipswich clam practically everywhere in the country. Though the place is only 30 miles from Boston, it feels rather like a breakwater between plush suburbs and smaller seaside towns. It has meandering gravel sidewalks, plenty of space between the houses, and locals with an attitude of affable insularity.
That means that no one will tell you that bigbellied clams are the thing to ask for at the Clam Box of Ipswich, the most iconic shack in this most iconic clam town, but they are. The "Box" is a circa1935 structure that resembles a Chinese takeout container—a squat, square base with a flared open top—that’s impossible to miss among the modest Victorian houses and more anonymous commercial neighbors.
The difference in belly size is, in fact, a matter of size, not species; the bigbellied specimens I tasted at the Clam Box delivered a distinctive, juicy saline blast. The crisp and attentive deep frying here is nothing to grouse about, either. As at every shack, the Clam Box’s fritters are available as part of a "meal" that includes french fries and/or onion rings; in a hot dog bun as a "clam roll"; or on their own, typically by the pint or the plate.
According to local lore, it wasn’t until Lawrence "Chubby" Woodman introduced a shucked clam to sizzling oil in 1916 that the fried clam, a summer staple of New Englanders to this day, was born. His descendants now run Woodman’s of Essex—often cited as a paragon of friedclam excellence.
Despite its previous life as a shipbuilding powerhouse, Essex has retained an understated, classic New England image. Aside from the businesses that cling to Route 133—restaurants, the occasional gas station, and (mostly) antiques shops—it’s a quiet place, the grassy marshland occasionally interrupted by a field of strawberries or an impressive Colonial house on a wellmanicured plot of land.
Across the street from the Essex River, Woodman’s is the largest clam shack in the area and the most like a theme park: a separate shack on the premises sells all manner of Woodman’sbranded apparel and collectibles.
On my visit to the Clam Box, ReaLemon or some other equally insipid citricacid product has replaced the real thing, and the clams themselves lack the liveliness, the pop, the addictive quality of the offerings at other local spots. However, I wouldn’t pass through the area without sampling Woodman’s chowder. The broth is thin and milky, but not at all wanting in richness, and dotted through with gently cooked clams and chunks of potato with just the right balance of firmness and fallingapartness.
As I left Woodman’s near dusk one day, I saw a wild turkey scuttle across the road between the White Elephant’s antiques "outlet" (very good deals, lots of junk) and its main location (still some good deals, plus better junk). Next I headed east down Route 133, where the sprawling marshland gives way to a thick stand of oak and elm trees. That’s where I found Essex Seafood, a tidy little white shack and retail fish market, complete with lobster tanks and plenty of the local catch—haddock and sole from Gloucester, softshell clams from Essex, and shrimp from Maine. Of the places I visited, this was the only one that shucked its own clams, and the difference is clear: these clams are fresher, sweeter, and plumper.
The last stop on my quest was J. T. Farnham’s, where the specialty is smallbelly clams. Terry Cellucci and her husband took over from Mr. Farnham himself 14 years ago, when none of his kids wanted to carry on the family business.
Though all of the clam shacks I visited use the same basic method, which produces a fairly similar crust—clams are dipped in an evaporated milk wash, dusted with finely ground corn flour or a mix of corn flour and wheat flour, then deepfried—each recipe has its own secret twists. Mrs. Cellucci said one of hers was using eggs from Hardy’s Hatchery, a local chicken farm, in the milky mix. I gilded the lily and ordered a plate of fried cod cheeks as a side to my clams at Farnham’s, and each nugget turned out to be more astonishingly creamy and rich than the one before it.
As with all good clam shacks, there’s a line to contend with. But the lines, like the regional lingo—knowing your belly sizes, calling things native (not local), knowing when to skip over perfectly good letters in order to properly pronounce the names of towns like Gloucester (Gloster)—are part of the experience.
And if you do get a sidelong glance for not dropping your r’s, so what?It’s a pittance to pay for the pleasure of putting away a plate of Farnham’s clams—their gossamerthin cornflour coating crisped to the goldenest of browns, the briny clams firm but moist inside, tasting ineffably of the shallow waterway-slashed landscape just yards beyond the edge of your picnic table. With a bottle of whatever’s on offer from the Cape Ann Brewing Company providing hoppy relief from the wait in that line of sunstroked daytrippers and relaxed, withtheprogram natives, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Peter Meehan is a regular contributor to the New York Times.
When to Go
Most clam shacks close in November and reopen in the spring. To beat the peakseason lines, order ahead and snag your fix from the takeout window.
Where to Eat
Clam Box of Ipswich 246 High St., Ipswich; 978/3569707; clams for two $38.
Essex Seafood 143R Eastern Ave., Essex; 978/7687233; clams for two $30.
J.T. Farnham’s 88 Eastern Ave., Essex; 978/7686643; clams for two $27.
Woodman’s of Essex 121 Main St.; 978/7682559; chowder for two $3.
Where to Stay
The Inn at Castle Hill Beautifully renovated, historic 10room inn on 165 acres of protected land. 280 Argilla Rd., Ipswich; 978/4122555; theinnatcastlehill.com; doubles from $175.